The Year is 2563…

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“Next up, Jennifer Lopez, a librarian from 2017–will she perform better than our last few contestants and win a coveted spot on ‘Space Station Jupiter’?”

Backstage, Jen frowned as the makeup robot freshened her lipstick and put powder on her cleavage. Why was the announcer mentioning the year as if it were her city or place of birth or something? She still wasn’t sure she understood the point of this interview. The people who had explained earlier had said this was a job interview, but here she was on some sort of studio set with cameras and lights and the backstage area she was currently sitting in. Looking in the mirror, Jen hardly recognized the face looking back at her. The makeup was the final step in a transformation from mousy librarian to the overly dressed, overly glitzy, overly everything 1970s style entertainer looking back at her now.

Jen’s hair was teased and shellacked into a strange pompadour that she thought rather resembled a horse’s mane. Her eyes were decorated with sequins, glitter, and 6 different colors, all of which made her afraid to blink lest something go into her eye. Makeup was also overdone with highly rouged cheeks and lips and more sparkles on her cheeks. And the outfit…my god, the outfit, platform shoes about twelve inches high and low rise pants in powder blue with silver sparkles and bell bottoms as wide at the bottom as a skirt–to be clear, each leg was as wide as a skirt. And the top, Jen shuddered to imagine what her parents would think of her. The top was basically see through with strategically placed polka dot sparkles as tokens of modesty.

And she had never seen so much jewelry on one person, just the weight of the rings was astonishing. Each finger had rings up to the knuckle, some fingers with five or more rings–huge, elaborate, and of course, sparkling with gem stones.

A light began flashing next to the stage and a man jumped up to escort her out on stage. “Let’s give a warm welcome to Jennifer, everyone!” The announcer’s voice rang out.

Jen walked on stage, hesitating in the glare of the lights. She couldn’t see anything past the lights at the end of the stage, they were just too bright, but she could hear applause from what she supposed was the audience. She made her way to the center of the stage where a man sat behind a desk with two chairs to one side. The setup was familiar, reminding Jen of late night talk shows. The backdrop of the stage was a black screen with stars and planets as if the galaxy was flattened for a picture. She could see the Milky Way more vibrantly than ever in real life.

As she had been instructed, she approached the man behind the desk and held out her hand. “Hello, I’m Jennifer.”

The man looked very strange and Jen struggled to determine what about him was odd. “Great to meet you,” He smiled at her and gestured to a chair. “Have a seat, I’m Max.”

As he smiled, Jen realized what was odd about him–his face seemed shiny like a plastic doll. And when he smiled, his teeth were not individual teeth, just whiteness in a line. He was clearly not a real person.

“Let’s start with the big, bold question, Jennifer. Why do you deserve to be one of the lucky few humans to go to Space Station Jupiter?” The audience applauded and cheered. Jen’s brows drew together in a frown. The audience booed. “Oh no, my dear, be careful–frowns will drop your ratings mighty quick!”

“My ratings? I don’t understand, I thought I was here for a job interview?”

“My, isn’t she a sweet young thing?” Cheers from the audience. “Sure hon, this is your most important interview ever!” Max asserted, giving her a thumbs up. “Answer the question–quickly! I have other interviews to get to.” The audience clapped and yelled, “Answer the question!”

“Well, I’m a hard worker,” Jen began softly.

“Louder, sugar! This show is in distribution throughout the galaxy. We need volume to translate!”

Jen spoke louder. “I get along with my co-workers–”

“Oooh, gets along with co-workers!” Max winked broadly at the audience. “That’s important for this position.” The audience snickered and hooted.

“What else you got, sister?” Max looked at Jen with a broad wink to the audience.

“Well, I’m good with children, of course.”

“Ding, ding, ding! Time’s up for this interview. Audience, thumbs up or down?” Max looked towards the cameras. “Does Jennifer have what it takes to help repopulate the Earth race?”

A speedometer type gauge appeared over the universe map. As Jen watched, totally at a loss for what was happening, she saw the stars on the map change colors to red or green. The gauge slowly filled with green on the left and progressed towards and finally passed a mark that read “Accepted”. The audience roared and Max jumped to his feet.

“Jennifer, you’re a winner! On to Space Station Jupiter with you.”

Someone came out and led her off stage. She heard the announcer saying, “Next up, Joe Hayward, a car salesman from 2010.” Jen shook her head to clear it. Her escort led her to a blue door and knocked. A woman opened the door and said, “Oh good, another female!” She looked more normal to Jen than anyone or thing she had seen so far that day.

“I don’t understand,” Jen cried out. “What is going on here? None of this makes any sense.”

“Oh, the drug is wearing off, just try and stay calm. Please, sit down. I’m Cilla, what’s your name?” The woman asked, leading Jen to a couch against the wall. About thirty other people were in the room, some as fantastically dressed as Jen, others more soberly as the woman leading her to the couch.

“Jen Lopez”

“Well Jen, this whole thing will be a huge shock for you. I know it was for me! The year is 2563 and Earth was destroyed about ten years ago. Several other worlds found Earthlings who had been cryogenically frozen on Mars–apparently that was the deep storage location for people like you and I. Anyway, now there’s an effort underway to repopulate the species on a space station on Jupiter. That…interview was the aliens deciding if you get to be one of us…which apparently you do.”

“And if they decided no?”

Cilla looked down at her hands for a minute and sighed. Looking back up at Jen, she said, “Well, then you got shown to the black door. Or so I’ve heard. From what I understand, people who go through the black door are destroyed. Lucky for us, we apparently answered the interview questions correctly!”

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Business as UNusual

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At first my evening was just work like any other day–and then the housewife from Earth materialized standing on my desk. Not that sudden appearances of strange objects or creatures was all that uncommon in my line of work, but her showing up standing on the top of my desk and wearing a company badge? Well, that was just a little odd. First of all, the UN did not typically employ Earthlings. Secondly, new employees usually arrived at the door accompanied by someone from HR. She wasn’t bad looking, for a human, she at least had the decency to not be monstrously tall like most of them–or she wouldn’t be when she wasn’t standing on my desk.

“Hey, you wanna get down from there?” I asked her, holding out a paw. “You’re making a mess of my paperwork.”

She shrank away from me and whispered, “A dog, a talking dog. I really don’t understand what’s happening.”

I saw that she was holding the company’s handbook for new employees. “Lady, what are you doing here? You have a UN badge and an employee handbook. Do you work here?”

She glanced down at the book. “Surely I must be dreaming again. I mean, this doesn’t make any sense. It didn’t make sense when Howard explained it to me earlier either.”

“Can you just get down from there already?” I said snappishly. “Let’s ignore whether things make sense and focus on getting off of my desk!” My voice may have raised a little there at the end, but her left foot was touching my lunch!

She cautiously clambered down and looked around curiously. I noticed she had an envelope in her other hand. An envelope with my name on it. Oh no. I felt a sinking sensation in my stomachs. Surely HR would not have, could not have–“Is that for me?” I asked gruffly.

She glanced down at the envelope. “Howard said to give this to Quin.” She said hesitantly, “I have no idea who Quin is.”

“I’m Quin!” I barked. “Hand it over.”

She handed me the envelope which I quickly opened and then pulled out the single sheet of paper inside.

Quin,

I know you are not normally fond of aliens and especially not humans, but Susan Pierce has the right qualities for a UN peacekeeper. I want you to train her. No arguments, just do it.

Howard

Damn! I did not have time for training a newbie. Especially a newbie from Earth where they don’t even know there are aliens let alone a million worlds worth of aliens. And only one UN to police interactions between the worlds. One UN to right encounters that have gone wrong. One UN to keep planet A in the dark about planet B until they can embrace their differences rather than blow the world up for those differences. I sighed.

Howard, however, was a force unto himself. Howard had once convinced an Earth singer that he had not met an alien and that the moonwalk was just a cool dance move. Howard had single-handedly saved life on Mars by emigrating all of it to a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. Howard would not be denied.

Susan had not moved from her place next to my desk, but her eyes had toured my entire office. She was currently intently studying the map of the universe on the left wall.

“So,” I said, “Why exactly are you here?”

“I…I…well…” She didn’t sound particularly smart to me, what with the stuttering and all. “Howard said he wanted me trained. I don’t quite understand what for or why. And I don’t understand why he was living in my basement. And when he started talking to me, well, I kind of freaked out.”

“I can see that,” I replied dryly. “Actually, I kind of freak out when he talks to me too. And he does it all of the time. Talk, I mean. I think he likes to hear the sound of his own voice.”

A small, only slightly hysterical laugh escaped Susan. “That sounds about right. For all the talking though, he never really mentioned what he wanted to train me for!”

I sighed again. Typical Howard, start something in motion and then disappear, letting others finish what he started. “Okay, from the beginning then. I’m Quin Stollach, a Verlutian from Verlutia, of course. Have a seat.” I gestured towards the guest chair suitable for bipeds.

The lady, Susan, I reminded myself, gingerly climbed up and sat on the end of the chair. I stifled a laugh, she really was an uncommonly small biped, her feet were dangling a good 2 feet off of the ground. I sighed. “Maybe not there. That doesn’t look particularly comfortable.”

I pulled a box of paperwork off of a shelf and Susan jumped down and perched herself on the box instead. Her eyes had been caught by the skull of a Druandar on the shelf. I could see how that would be arresting as it was about four times the size of her head and also had six horns.

“So Susan. Howard has recommended you as a UN peacekeeper. He says you have…er…qualities that make you suitable.” I looked at her questioningly. “Can you enlighten me as to these…qualities?”

“Well,” Susan said in a small voice. “Howard seemed to think I was telepathic or something.” Her voice grew a little stronger. “I’ve always thought–well, that I was somewhat crazy. Oh, not all of the time. But every other month or so, I have this sort of waking dream where I seem to hear someone or something’s thoughts in my head. Not the same someone, always different and it’s usually incomprehensible. I mean, I understand what is being thought about, but it’s just nonsensical.”

I frowned. “Give me an example, the last time maybe?”

“Well, that was last week. I was sitting reading and suddenly I was experiencing thoughts of someone or thing who was very, very angry at some group of…people. The thoughts were about planning something against these people, to kill them all. I had a clear picture of some sort of electrical contraption–extremely large, towering over some strange looking city. And then, what looked like lightning emanated from the machine and went up into space for several minutes. Then…a sense of laughter and immense…satisfaction. Then it was over.”

Part way through Susan’s recitation, I had recognized in her description of the machine’s behavior a similarity to the recent destruction of Caluna, a world just discovering other sentient life. UN had not yet determined the source of the destructive energy, but apparently Susan had somehow tuned into the culprit’s thoughts. Howard was right–if she could see and hear things like that, she did belong in the UN.

“Susan, Howard sent you here to me because our job is to prevent things like what you described from occurring. Or, if we are too late, to discover the perpetrators and ensure they can never do something like that again.” I began pacing back and forth nervously. “We’ve never had an earthling working at UN. I’ll warn you that the others here do not have very good opinions of Earthlings. Things will not be easy for you. This job will involve abandoning your preconceptions, working hard to train your abilities, and overcoming your prejudices. However, based on your story and Howard’s recommendation, I do concur and conclude that you could be a powerful force for good.” I looked at her fiercely. “Can you, will you, pledge to help the UN?”

“UN?” Susan questioned, looking thoughtful.

“Universe Nightwatch, the peacekeepers of the universe. We can use all of the help we can find. Keeping sentient beings from hating and destroying other sentient beings is a full time job for a thousand more employees than we currently have! Your abilities could be extremely useful.”

Susan jumped up. “Oh yes! I’m so happy that a) I’m not crazy and b) I can help the world be a better place. I do have one more question though.”

“Yes? As your trainer, that’s what I’m here for.”

“Why are dogs and cats working for the UN?”

I sighed yet again. This was going to be even harder than I had thought.

A Lunch Date Gone Wrong

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Paul caught himself almost skipping on his way to Le Petit Pain. Guys did not skip! Especially guys who were sweet on the girl next door and were about to meet her for lunch. What kind of fool would she think he was, tripping along with a skip in his step? And possibly a little song in his heart, “Waiting For a Girl Like You” or even “Jungle Love”, which sadly now morphed into “Danger Zone” as he spied Dean Whitaker ahead.

Slowing his steps to a measured stride that he thought went well with his career suit and tie, Paul drawled a laconic, “Dean? What are you doing here?”

Dean turned and gave Paul his usual enigmatic smile. “Just dropping my sister off. You two having lunch? A little business meeting, maybe?”

Swallowing his annoyance, Paul forced politeness into his tone. “Actually, Dean, Dani and I are having a lunch date–I promise you no business involved at all.” Paul congratulated himself on the casual tone of his voice. He knew Dean was trying to anger him, but Paul was not going to rise to the bait. No anger, no eruptions, Dani had had enough emotional turmoil with her ex. Paul intended to be sweet and loving and calm. Dean was not going to draw him into a battle, verbal or otherwise.

“Really? Are you sure Dani knows it’s a date?” Dean replied, smiling. “I mean, you work right next door to each other. And you go to lunch a couple of times a week. I’m pretty sure you’re like a second brother to her.”

Paul breathed in slowly and just as slowly exhaled. Quietly. And again. “Dean, good to see you. Talk to you later.”

Continuing up the street, Paul imagined Dean was a bowling pin and he was throwing the ball that knocked him down. Another slow, easy breath. Dean was now a small, pesky, buzzing fly. Swat. Another slower, deeper breath. Dean was standing next to Paul on the edge of a cliff. One push, that’s all it would take. Absurdly cheered by disposing of Dean in his mind, Paul walked into the restaurant.

Looking quickly around, he didn’t see Dani at any of the tables. “Derek,” Paul asked the host, “Dani here yet? We’re meeting for lunch.”

“Hey Paul. Yes, she’s here, she wanted to sit outside.” Derek led the way out to the courtyard. A fountain in the corner was tinkling merrily. The sun was warm, but not too warm. The wrought iron tables had vases of flowers on them. Perfect day for eating outside, in fact. Paul smiled.

Dani was seated near the back wall with some cheerful flowers climbing a trellis behind her. She looked up as Paul pulled back the chair opposite her. “Hey! I was beginning to think I was going to have to eat a lonely salad.”

“Why a lonely salad?” Paul laughed as he sat down.

“Well, if I’m eating alone, I can hardly have both a salad AND a burger!” Dani smiled at him. “That’s way too much food for just me, but I could share both with you. If you didn’t show up though, I’d have to go with just the healthy salad option.” She said, wrinkling her nose.

“Oh, so I have no say in this, huh?” Paul replied, raising one eyebrow. “You just assume I’ll fall in with your plan, do you?”

Dani laughed out loud. “Well, of course! That’s the gentlemanly thing to do, after all.”

The server, Jane, came over with a carafe of water for their table. “Hey Paul, do you want anything other than water?”

“Well, I guess I don’t know, let me check.” Paul slowly replied, causing Jane to look confused. “Dani, do I want something else to drink?”

“Hah, you’re so funny–a laugh a minute.” Dani replied, swatting at his hand.

“Must be a full moon tonight.” Jane muttered under her breath.

“I’m sorry, what Jane?” Paul grinned up at her.

“Do you want to hear the specials?” Jane asked, pointedly ignoring his question.

“No, no, Dani’s already decided for us–go on, Dani.”

“Shush Paul,” Dani said, winking at Jane. “We’ll have the strawberry salad and a bleu cheese burger medium well. Can you have Kenny split them for us?”

“Sure thing,” Jane said cheerfully as she scribbled on her pad. “Shouldn’t be too long, kind of quiet today.”

As Jane left, Paul turned back to Dani only to see her frowning as she looked towards the door into the restaurant. Paul turned to see what was causing her frown. “Oh seriously?” he sighed, seeing Dani’s ex-boyfriend walking towards them. He turned back to Dani in time to see the smile leave her eyes as she looked down at her napkin.

“Dani,” Troy said, stopping way too close to Dani for Paul to like. “Good to see you. I’ve been trying to call you.”

“Yes. I know.” Dani replied, not looking up. “I don’t want to talk to you.”

“But Dani,” Troy’s voice took on that oh so annoying whiny tone. “I don’t understand why you’re angry at me. I said I was sorry.”

“I’m not angry,” Dani said calmly, looking up. “I just don’t want to talk to you.”

Troy’s brows drew together in anger. “Well, that’s a great attitude! Who do you think is going to want to put up with you and your problems other than me?” Troy’s voice took on an aggrieved, put upon tone. Paul tried to imagine Troy as the fly and swat him with the fly swatter. Nope, he was still there.

Dani’s eyes closed and Paul could see her lower lip trembling.

“Hey, stop bullying her!” Paul found himself suddenly standing next to Troy. “She said she doesn’t want to talk to you, so just leave already.” He was secretly pleased that the words came out in a calm, normal tone as he felt anger growing inside.

“Butt out! This is between me and Dani.” Troy glowered at him.

Paul knew how to handle bullies like Troy–stand up to them and don’t act afraid. “Sorry bud, but Dani and I are here on a date. She’s moved on, get lost.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dani start. Crap. Dean was right, she hadn’t realized this was a date.

“I’m not going anywhere until I talk to Dani.” Troy said, his face turning sulky.

Great, Paul thought. I’m not doing a very good job of lightening up Dani’s mood. “Troy, I heard Dani say she didn’t want to talk to you. I’m pretty sure everyone out here and for two blocks down the street has heard me telling you to leave twice. There may be two kids roller skating in the park over there who didn’t hear–but only because they have headphones on. Maybe you should go over there and tell them?”

He saw Dani put her hands over her face and her shoulders started to shake. Great, now he’d made her cry. Taking a deep breath, Paul said more calmly, ” Just go, Troy. You’re not wanted here and I’m not going to let you bully Dani.”

Spluttering, Troy started to speak. Paul interrupted him immediately. “Seriously dude, take the hint. You’re not welcome.”

Troy’s face turned red but at least he finally turned and walked away. “Dani, I’m so sorry,” Paul said. “I didn’t mean–“.

“No, that was absolutely fabulous!” Dani’s hands came away from her face and he saw that she was laughing, not crying. “I’ve never seen Troy at a loss for words. Priceless!”

Paul smiled and started to speak but Dani interrupted him again. “Dating? You and me? For real?” She looked at him with one corner of her mouth quirked up.

“Oh definitely for real,” Paul breathed out. “Definitely.”

An Unexpected Union

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Susanna lunged to grab her book which had slipped from her lap. Her knee jerk reaction to “book in danger” caused the situation to slide into “Susanna in danger” as she temporarily forgot her precarious perch on the tree branch. She gripped the book tightly in her left hand and flung her right arm around the branch where she had previously been sitting. The tree bark scraped the skin from her arm and she involuntarily cried out. Wriggling further out on the branch, her weight pulled the branch down. Stretching her toes down, she could just feel the next branch which was sturdier and thicker. Cautiously she put more weight on the branch which keeping her arm hooked around the upper branch. As she moved closer to the trunk, Susanna regained her usual “tree sense” and moved more quickly. Shimmying down the trunk, she picked up the pencil she had dropped, scribbled one more line, closed her book, and ran for home.

Her mother’s yell of her name repeated, sounding even more annoyed than normal. That usually meant that she had been calling for Susanna for quite some time. Out of breath by the time she reached the street, Susanna shoved her book into the back of her pants with the shirt untucked and slowed to a fast walk in case anyone was watching. The neighbors were always telling her mother stories about Susanna and even tried to get her little brothers in trouble and they barely left the house yet except to go to preschool. Looking down the street at her house, she saw Mrs. Petters talking to Susanna’s mother at the front door.

Susanna hurried towards her mother and yelled, “Coming,” even though she knew her mother could see her. No reason to make her angrier by not replying. Mrs. Petters turned to look at Susanna and then turned back to Susanna’s mother and then pointed to her house. As she approached, Susanna heard her say, “…my hydrangea bush–crushed.” Susanna’s mother sighed and motioned Susanna into the house. “It’s dinner time, where have you been? Go in the house and wash your hands. Make sure your brothers wash their hands too.”

Susanna gladly escaped Mrs. Petters’ glare and went inside. Calling to her brothers, she went into the bathroom to wash up. “Carl! Joe! Come down for dinner!” She heard giggling and running upstairs.

“Coming, Zanna,” Carl yelled. “Stop it, Joe! I’m first, you wait.” Susanna heard the twins galumphing down the stairs. Someone slammed into the bathroom door. “I told you to wait!”

Susanna opened the door. “Both of you come in here and wash your hands.” Their faces smiled up at her, Carl with dark hair and eyes and a serious face and Joe with light brown hair, hazel eyes, and his usual grin. She smiled back at their innocent faces. Each of them grabbed one of her hands and tried to talk at once and pull her in different directions. “Hey, no tug-of-war with me as the rope,” Susanna said, pulling them together into the bathroom. “Wash up, do a good job. Mom’s already mad at me for something.”

“Petters was outside ratting you out about some flowers,” Joe said as he turned on the water. “As if you would want any of her flowers!”

“I’m pretty sure I haven’t been near her house at all today.” Susanna replied, absently pushing Carl’s sleeves up to keep them somewhat dry. “And why would I have been in her flowers anyway?”

Carl turned his serious look on her. “She said something about you being out last night with a boy. And that you were in her back yard. She said you have a boyfriend and whatever she said to Mom made her really upset.”

Susanna heard the front door shut as her mother came inside. “Finish washing up quickly,” she told the boys. “Dinner is ready and Mom’s already in a bad mood. Don’t make it worse.”

Entering the kitchen, Susanna saw they were having what used to be her favorite meal for dinner, alphabet soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, and potato chips. Not a common meal to have anymore as the twins did not like grilled cheese and Susanna hadn’t had alphabet soup since she was eight. “Mom, sorry I didn’t hear you at first.” Her mother was ladling the soup into bowls and only quickly glanced at her. “The twins are washing up,” Susanna continued.

“Great. Good. Sit down,” Her mother looked as if she had been crying. “I know this isn’t our normal type of meal, but I felt the need for a little comfort food.”

“Is something wrong?” Susanna asked, sliding into her usual seat. “Am I in trouble or something?” She nervously pushed the silverware to one side, idly picking up her soup spoon and looking down at it. She missed seeing her mother’s brief frown of confusion.

“Let’s eat first,” Her mother said as the boys ran into the kitchen.

“Grilled cheese?” Joe said, thumping noisily into his seat. “I hate grilled cheese. Why are we having grilled cheese?”

“Don’t eat the grilled cheese then!” Susanna’s mother said, banging the ladle as she put the pot on the stove.

Joe looked questioningly at Susanna who put her finger to her lips. “Shhh,” she whispered. Joe looked from Susanna to their mother and picked up his grilled cheese.

Their mother sat down and picked up her soup spoon. Looking into her bowl, she stirred the soup with her spoon. Susanna watched, worried. While her mother sometimes got angry and yelled, she usually quickly returned to her normal self. Susanna ate a few bites of soup and nibbled on her sandwich. The twins had quickly gobbled their food and were starting to squabble.

“May we be excused?” Carl asked. Seeing their mother nod, the boys quickly escaped to their room. Susanna began clearing the table and rinsing off the dishes. Turning off the water, she heard her mother sobbing quietly.

“Mom, what’s wrong?” Susanna asked nervously, walking back over to the table.

Her mother rubbed her eyes and looked at Susanna. “Where were you last night? I went up to your room to tell you something and you weren’t there. I called around looking for you and no one had seen you. The only one of your friends I couldn’t reach was Lucy. And then Mrs. Petters is over here telling me you were in her backyard with a boy. And she said the two of you were–”

“Mom, no!” Susanna sat back down at the table. “That wasn’t me. I promise you.”

“Where were you then? You didn’t ask to go somewhere. You had supposedly gone to bed. You hadn’t slept in your bed–it was 11:30!” The volume of her mother’s voice kept increasing with every word.

Susanna closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Lucy called me. She…she…didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even know what to tell her to do. I was scared. She begged me not to tell anyone so I haven’t. She was babysitting at the Nilberts’ last night. She was walking back home through the yards and…” Susanna trailed off.

“And?” Her mother picked up both of Susanna’s hands in hers.

“One of the seniors was in Petters’ yard and he grabbed her and…” Susanna burst out crying.

Her mother pulled Susanna over onto her lap. “Shhh…honey…tell me everything. And then we’ll both go over to Lucy’s house and see how we can help her.” Susanna’s mother gripped her daughter tightly and closed her eyes as tears ran down her face.

 

Chasing the Enemy

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I peered cautiously through the gates’ wrought iron bars, careful to keep my body firmly behind the brick wall. No one was in sight although I could hear singing faintly echoing from the cathedral behind me. I wondered why they were still singing, surely Anton had sounded the alert when I escaped. Maybe he had not yet found out I was gone? They had placed but a single guard at the door, expecting that I would not awaken for several hours yet. But soon…soon someone would come to question me and then pursuit would be at my heels.

Still, maybe there was a chance to at least warn the others. I could be the parakeet in the cage that miners would take down into the mine to warn them of bad air. If the parakeet died, the miners knew to leave right away. I have often heard ill-informed people saying a canary was used for this purpose. Ridiculous! A parakeet was both easier to find than a canary and smaller, allowing the warning to be quicker.

Nervously, I straightened my shirt, plucking at a stray thread. Trips down memory lane were a luxury I could ill afford, but then I have always been one to procrastinate. Why do something unappealing today when you could wait and do whatever it was in a hundred years? Or even two hundred. Or, wait long enough and the act might not be necessary at all any more. That was how I had endured wars, black plague, even bell bottoms! Best to be a bystander, I have always thought. I am distressed to consider my recent failures in this area. Why did I break my own rules of non-involvement in human affairs? And now, to feel compelled to warn those who had previously hunted and destroyed others of my kind–surely this is a type of madness? Possibly my years of solitude have adversely affected my common sense?

Shrugging off these strangely perverse musings, I carefully inched the gate’s bar up in an effort to prevent the normal squeal of protest. At some point, the caretaker had attempted to straighten the latch bar with a hammer, causing the previous grating and rasping protests to be replaced by squealing and squeaking wails instead. Normally, I would consider the change quite an improvement, but as I was currently “on the lam”, silence would be preferable. My current procrastination stemmed from an atypical fear of discovery; I was all too vulnerable in this location.

Slipping through the slight opening, I edged along the fence taking care to remain in the shadows. Typically humans would immediately look away on seeing the demon looking out from my eyes, but the enemy would know me for what I am. I had heard the first guard discussing my appearance with his replacement, using such words as “deathly ashen skin”, “lifeless eyes”, and “cruel mouth”. Such melodrama! While truth be told, my skin is rather pale and my eyes do not “sparkle” as humans’ do, my mouth is not cruel at all. I have been known to smile and most certainly I am not one to spread gossip and lies as humans are wont to do.

Perhaps I have existed too long? Else why do I continue to prattle away to myself rather than removing myself from the vicinity of the “Order of the Cowl”? Idiotic name, that! They were neither monks nor priestly in any manner. Nor did they wear cowls. Likely they think the name makes them sound mysterious. Hokey, yes. Mysterious, no.

I glided around another corner. Noticing a shimmering in the air, I frantically backpedaled but not quickly enough. As the shimmer crystallized into a small girl with a stake in her hand, I cried out, “No, wait! I am helping your–”

Dust settled in a small pile in front of the girl.

 

Drama In and Out of the Lab

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The strident noises of monkeys screeching and metal clanging against other metal objects persuaded Elaine that she should remain hidden in the supply closet. And then the murders began.

While she couldn’t see into the room from her position on the bottom shelf, the sounds of screams suddenly cut off were fairly definitive. Elaine pulled some towels in front of her in case they looked for her in the closet. Trembling, she tried to wedge herself further back into the shelf without much success. The assailants had clearly not left the lab yet and she wanted to be well hidden in from sight. Unfortunately, she could still see one of her shoes sticking out from the shelf. Wriggling a little more, she managed to maneuver some towels in front of her foot.

The screaming was growing fainter and further away and finally Elaine heard the outer lab door slam shut. Holding her breath, she listened intently for any other noises. Nothing. Still fearful, she huddled on the shelf for what seemed like hours. Finally, the suspense of not knowing was worse than the fear of what she might find.

She carefully wriggled on the shelf to turn and lower herself to the ground. Legs and feet tingled with pins and needles from her cramped position. She slowly moved to the door and inched it open. The lab looked as if a tornado had touched down. Trays were upended, lab stools were scattered, some lying on the floor, some up on the lab benches, and strangely, one hung upside down from a coat rack.

No one was in sight and both exit doors were shut. The telephone on the wall had been yanked partially off and was hanging at an angle. Elaine gingerly stepped over trays of agar and assorted glass slides and beakers. Broken bits of glass were everywhere.

Inching past the first lab desk, she found the first body and gasped. No movement, obviously dead. Always the microbiologist, even amidst the carnage she noted the details automatically. Just past the first body, three more, two with missing limbs but curiously not much blood. Even while her mind clinically cataloged the deaths, Elaine began to retch.

Turning away, she realized that there was someone else in the lab, Janice, the international expert who had been flown in as a consultant last year.

“Why didn’t you do something?” Elaine cried.

Janice frowned, “I am just an innocent bystander here,” she said in her heavily accented English. “Do not try to involve me in your dramas.”

“Drama!” screamed Elaine. “Don’t give me that crap. I think you instigated all of this. This is a new height of meanness, even for you.”

“These are not natural creatures, these things from the Pituan Trench.” Janice replied calmly. “They should be destroyed.”

“Destroyed? You mean murdered!” Elaine swung around and picked up one of the bodies. “Look! Two limbs ripped off. I could hear their screams!”

“Your arachnida pigmotes would have died painlessly but for the fight you started.” Janice interrupted. “We had discovered what we needed to about them. They are poisonous and dangerous. You know the decision was made to gas them painlessly. Instead, you tried to free them and three people are dead because of you.”

“You…and the rest…don’t understand.” Elaine cried, tears welling up in her eyes. “I have to help them. They’re making me.” Her eyes widened. “I am sorry, Janice, please believe me.”

The arachnid slowly lowered on its web line and landed on Janice’s neck. Before she could even raise her hand up, the spider bit her and she began to fall to the ground. Tears falling freely, Elaine opened the lab door and exited, leading the queen spider and hundreds of her babies outside to freedom.

A Family Mystery Uncovered

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Late Sunday evening, Hope was still sorting through her grandfather’s papers in his study. “I can’t believe I still haven’t finished emptying this desk, ” she thought, pushing her bangs back from her face. How had Papa managed to cram so many papers into a single desk?

Placing what seemed to be the thousandth paid bill into the recycling box, Hope wondered what made people want to keep old bills and paperwork for years and years. Maybe it was a generational thing, but she liked paying her bills online and then forgetting about them. She smiled, remembering how Papa diligently sat at his desk every Sunday afternoon with his checkbook ledger, the folder of unpaid bills, and a glass of whiskey.

“The whiskey, Hope,” she heard him say, “Is my reward for doing the job. One small sip per bill.” He would wink at her. “Then, the rest can be savored when the job is complete.”

Hope smiled at the memory. She still was unused to being in the house without his strong presence. Standing up and stretching, she walked over the fireplace mantel and picked up the picture of him and Gran on their wedding day. Next to it was a bi-fold frame with pictures of Hope, one as a serious preteen and the other from her high school graduation. Her eyes wandered over the other pictures: her father as a young man, he and mom on their wedding day, the happy couple holding a baby, her. Next was a picture of her grandfather as a young boy next to a slightly older girl, his sister Patti.

Hope noticed the picture was slightly askew in the frame. She picked up the frame to adjust the picture and noticed some faint writing behind the photograph. Her curiosity aroused, Hope turned the frame over and removed the backing. Behind the photograph was a folded paper with faint lines on one side and faded, angular handwriting on the other. Recognizing the handwriting as her grandfather’s, Hope unfolded the paper, which appeared to be torn out of a notebook and read. “If I swap east and west, the position of the island almost makes sense,” Hope looked up from reading and frowned. “Why Patti had to be so secretive, I don’t know. But I’ll put the information in the safe, just in case.”

Safe? Hope had never heard Papa mention a safe. The study was the last room to be cleared out before she had to sell the house. She loved the old place, but the taxes were high, her work was over forty miles away, and there was no one else in the family but Hope now. Her parents had died in a car crash a couple of years ago and Gran had been gone a little over a year. Hope was surprised that Papa had been able to go on without Gran, they had always been so close.

Gazing around the room, there was not much furniture that could be hiding a safe, just the desk she was almost done emptying and a worn, comfortable leather chair and hassock in front of the fireplace. There were also some builtin bookcases, but Hope had already emptied them and packed the books into boxes.

Otherwise, the only other item in the room was an oil painting of Gran which was over the mantel. Dragging the hassock over, Hope gingerly climbed onto it, holding the mantel and trying to pull gently on the frame, which did not budge. Still holding the mantel, she tilted her head up to study the frame of the painting. She noticed near the bottom right edge of the frame, the wallpaper was somewhat smudged. She ran her fingers over the side of the frame at that location and noticed a slight protrusion. Carefully, she pressed down and was startled when the frame slowly swung towards her.

She cautiously maneuvered the frame past her head and found that there was indeed a safe behind it. Knowing her grandfather’s penchant for using Gran’s name, birth date, or other information as passwords, Hope thought, “What the heck!” and began moving the dial: left to 7 for July, right and past the 7 to 17 for the day, and left again to 24 for the year Gran was born. With an audible click, the safe door opened.

Feeling as if she had suddenly walked into a Nancy Drew book, Hope reached into the safe and took out the only thing in it, a small wooden footlocker. Placing it under one arm, she carefully climbed down and sank into the chair.

Pulling the hassock over, she placed the box upon it and opened the lid. Inside were several thick notebooks, a bundle of letters tied with twine, and another, smaller box. Hope opened the smaller box and gasped at the contents, a bracelet with golden roses entwined with what looked like rubies, dangling earrings that matched were nestled inside of a bracelet of interlocking plates encrusted with jewels of various colors. Next to the bracelet was a broken strand of pearls with what appeared to be diamond stud earrings of several carats each on top. Hope picked up each piece and held the jewels up to the light. These cannot possibly be real, she thought. Papa and Gran certainly did not live as though they had money like this.

Opening the bundle of letters, Hope saw they were written in a feminine hand, but the writing was definitely not Gran’s. The letters were still in their envelopes, all addressed to Papa, and Hope sorted them by postmark date. The oldest was written in 1937, when Papa would have been 14, and the most recent in 1942 when Papa was actually overseas fighting in the war. Opening the first letter, Hope began to read.

“Dearest Carl, I am so sorry to have had to leave you behind, but you know that I cannot take you with me, it is much too dangerous for you. I would not have taken this drastic path, but you know that our father demanded that I marry Peter Gottfried. You know that I cannot marry him. Not only is he German and a Nazi, but he is an unusually cruel man. You are too young for me to give details, but know that I could not and will not become his wife, despite the marathon of angry demands by our father!”

“I do promise to write to you in care of our good friend, Cilla. Love, Patti.” Hope looked quickly back at the envelope and found that indeed, the letter had been sent care of her Gran at her childhood address.

Intrigued, Hope opened the next letter. “Dearest Carl, you will laugh, I am sure, to hear what has become of your sister. I have eschewed my feminine fripperies and am assisting in the war effort aboard a ship with French rebels. We attack the German ships, rob them, capsize them if we are able. Indeed, we are pirates–although we are pirating for the French and British and not for ourselves. But your sister, who would have been aghast to be caught wearing pants, now wears nothing but pants and men’s shirts. I have cut my hair short like a boy and many of the crew believe that I am a boy. Only a trusted few compatriots know the truth. All my love, Patti (or as I am known on board the ship, Paddy).”

Hope shook her head in disbelief. She was sure that her Papa had said that his sister married a Frenchman and was killed in the war. Nothing about being a pirate! Quickly, she opened the next letter.

“My dearest Carl, you will be surprised, I am sure, to hear that I have married. I am still not sure that I believe it myself! Pierre, one of my trusted compatriots, has become so dear to me and we determined to marry at Gretna Green, just as other couples in days past would run there to elope.”

“We had only one night before we had to be back aboard the ship and I again became Paddy, but we manage to steal time together when we can. I know you will understand now that you and Cilla are to be wed. I wish you as much joy as Pierre and I have found together. All my love and well wishes, Patti.”

The next letter was much less cheerful. “My dearest Carl, I have sent to you the jewels Pierre’s family insisted belong to me now as his wife. Pierre and I were chosen for an undercover mission, posing as a Frenchman and his wife. Which, of course, is what we actually are. However, I am supposed to be French as well. I cannot tell you how difficult it is to always speak and even try to think in French. You know the trouble I always had with rolling my R’s? Well, you would be very proud of my accent now, dear brother.”

“Keep these jewels for me and, if you do not hear from me again, they are now our family’s jewels as Pierre is the last of his family. I pray you will give them to your daughter or granddaughter on her wedding day. My love to you and Cilla always, Patti.”

Hope slowly refolded the last letter from her great aunt, thinking how courageous she sounded. Suddenly her eyes widened. The jewels were real? That was a fortune in jewelry just sitting in the box.

Picking up the notebooks, she opened the first one and found it filled with newspaper articles and her grandfather’s angular writing. The first book documented the “pirate” ships attacking German ships. The second appeared to follow Count and Countess Blankenship, German sympathizers, who lived in Paris and entertained the Nazis in their palace. “I’m guessing this is Pierre and Patti,” Hope thought. “I cannot imagine living a double life like that. And not to be able to send or receive letters from your family any more.”

In the third book, the Count and Countess were sailing on a German ship which went missing in the Mediterranean Sea. A newspaper article showed a map of the last known position of the ship. Holding the torn sheet up, Hope could see that not only was this the next page of the notebook, the map appeared to be a copy of the the one in the article, only flipped east to west. Why had her grandfather transposed the map?

Opening a map on her phone, Hope panned over to the Mediterranean and focused on the scattering of islands by Greece. Zooming in a little more, she found herself viewing a map which was almost identical to her grandfather’s drawing. She identified the two islands in view and frowned. What was her grandfather thinking? If his sister had survived, she would certainly have written to her brother again. Why try to determine the location of the ship when it disappeared?

Hope went back to the desk and opened her laptop. She started searching for “survivor” combined with the islands’ names. A few links down the page, she found a medical article describing delivering a baby from a comatose woman. The woman and her husband had washed up on the beach two months earlier. The woman did not survive, but her husband and the baby did.

Excited, Hope began a search for the man’s name, which was given to be Pietro Romanov. The child, named Patrick, grew up and eventually married and had a daughter named Carlotta who was just two years younger than Hope. Was it possible, could it be true that her family was not really gone with the passing of her grandfather?

Hope looked up the number for Patrick and Nelly Romanov and hesitantly dialed.

“Hello, this is Carlotta.”

Hope smiled, “Hi, my name is Hope. I think you may be my cousin.”